RENO — Governors in 16 states, including Nevada, unveiled a high-tech wildlife habitat mapping project Thursday that they hope will encourage economic development across the West while protecting the region’s environmental treasures — an ambitious effort that’s winning praise from conservationists and the energy industry.
The Western Governors’ Association wants to make it easier to chart paths across large landscapes where developers can expect the least regulatory resistance and threat of litigation as they draft plans to build highways, dig gold mines and erect power lines, pipelines or wind farms.
Five years in the making, the database will connect 16 Western states from California and Alaska to Montana and Oklahoma with a first-of-its-kind online system of colorful GIS maps displaying wildlife habitat, wetlands and other valuable natural resources — much of it detailed down to square-mile increments.
The Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, or CHAT, provides layers of data that rate the resources on a scale of one to six, from most to least “crucial.” Individual states determine those priorities based on their information about such things as the condition of the habitat and the individual species’ economic and recreational importance.
“The governors’ intent back in 2008 really was to cater to industries within their states who need data while at the same time conserving the resources the states are blessed with and the governors are charged with preserving,” said Carlee Brown, policy manager for the Western Governors’ Association.
“It’s going to provide that first look — a 30,000-foot view of the situation on the ground. It’s meant to be a starting point for states with different priorities and different resource needs to bring all their information together,” she told The Associated Press before the WGA announced details of the effort Thursday at its annual winter gathering in Las Vegas.
“If I’m a transportation planner working in Walla Walla, Wash., and I want to modify a highway for safety concerns along the Washington-Oregon border, I can look at different routes and draw different lines to see what kind of crucial habitat I run into, and where it ranks on the scale of one to six,” Brown said.
The Energy Department provided a $3 million grant and individual states contributed the time of mapping specialists the past three years to help gather, organize and input the information, said Joe Rassenfoss, WGA’s communications director. It’s expected to be especially helpful for projects that may encounter species of concern in multiple states, such as the sage grouse in the Great Basin or the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s the one-stop-shopping feature that is so powerful about CHAT,” he said.
Energy industry leaders agreed.
“That did not previously exist,” said Robert Veldman, senior environmental adviser for the Houston-based Noble Energy Inc., which drills for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico and recently started exploration in Nevada.
California, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and Kansas already are utilizing their own state databases. Nevada rolled out its new maps Thursday in concert with the regional package, with New Mexico and Oregon to follow later this month.